Tripp's post today seems to have stirred up a few responses, and the main reason I let it go through was to open a dialogue about the issue. If you're ticked off, good. You probably should be.
Every screenwriter has a story about "the one that was too edgy for them." If you got a nickel for every script that a writer claimed was "the most loved unfilmed script," you'd probably end up with enough money to produce all of those films. I think most of you out there are aspiring writers so you need to read Joe Eszterhas' The Devil's Guide to Hollywood, for a direct take on one such "unfilmable" script, full of taboos.
In 1989, Eszterhas wore a script called Sacred Cows on spec, intending to offer it to United Artists as the third script of a three-film deal. The plot features a liberal Democratic president running for re-election against a "right-wing McCarthyite demagogue." The President has always been a philanderer and one day on his farm he gets drunk and has sex with a cow.
Unfortunately a right-wing spy snaps a photo of him having sex with the cow and tries to blackmail him out of the race, so the President does the last thing anyone would expect - he comes clean. "Yes, I popped that cow!" he says. And because he tells the truth, he's reelected in a landslide.
The head of United Artists read the script, and when he hit the sex scene he was livid. But he kept reading and then called Eszterhas to say that he cried when he finished the script and he never cries when reading. He thought it was "brilliant" and said that if Eszterhas could attract "major elements" - a director, an actor - they'd consider making it.
Spielberg read it, called it the funniest thing he'd ever read and said he wanted to make it his next movie. In fact, in order to spread around the flack he expected to get for the film, he even tired to get Kubrick to produce it. Kubrick called it possibly "the funniest script he'd ever read" but didn't want to get within a mile of it. Spielberg decided he doesn't want to direct it, but he'll produce it and for a time Bob Zemeckis was set to direct.
Eszterhas recounts how the script went from one hot director to another. Many wanted to do it, but weren't "hot" enough for UA. Others didn't want to touch it, despite thinking it was original and brilliant. At one point, Spielberg is again attached to produce it, until he changes his mind because by then, so much time had passed that he'd become friends with the new President - Bill Clinton.
So the events surrounding Calling Card aren't all that unusual in this town. People write extreme scripts all the time, and end up making a name for themselves in the process. (Or in the case of Eszterhas, adding to their own notoriety.) Now, I'm sure some of you are going, "Okay, fine. But rape isn't funny."
Tell that to the makers of Trading Places.
Confused? Remember the scene where the guy in the gorilla suit ends up in the cage with an amorous male gorilla and the scene ends on a joke based entirely on the fact that this guy is about to get anally violated by a gorilla that mistakes him for a female? Some might laugh, some might not. The fact is, the joke was not only made, but I first saw it on TBS afternoon TV at the age of nine. Then several years later, an episode of The Simpsons featured a nearly identical joke, this time with a panda.
Okay, so bestiality is passable, but we'll all agree that person-on-person rape is taboo and never joked about, right?
Ever see a comedy set in prison? How often is prison rape played for laughs?
Okay, okay... but those are extreme over-the-top jokes. Nobody takes them seriously. In a dignified setting, no one would really make light of rape... unless it's, say, an interrogation scene on a cop show and the cops put the squeeze on a male suspect by implying that unless he talks, they'll make sure he's locked up somewhere where he'll make a popular "girlfriend."
I've seen that a lot on the Law & Orders and CSIs - notably ONLY with male suspects. They never tell a woman. "If you don't tell us exactly how you broke the law, or what you know, we're going to put you somewhere you'll be violated and then laugh about how helpless you are." So that seems to be where the line is.
So is the lesson that rape isn't funny unless the victim is a guy?
I'm not saying it should be funny - but I think it's important to chart how the line moves. And then of course, there's this famous routine from George Carlin (which has been somewhat ruined by the YouTube uploader.)
I agree that the scenario Tripp paints in his post is repugnant and shouldn't be played for laughs on film - but I think it's inevitable that something like that will happen unless we as screenwriters start taking note of the messages we send out. And I'm afraid that one very recent release is going to hasten that job.
A remake of I Spit On Your Grave has just been released. I confess upfront that I've seen neither the original nor the remake. Nor do I plan to. I've read enough disturbing rape scenes as part of my job that I know I have zero interest in seeing this. It's the story of a woman who goes up to a cottage and gets brutally gang-raped by four men. She survives, and the second half of the film depicts her revenge against her attackers. Because since the second half shows her taking vengeance, apparently it's completely acceptable to spend the first half of the film sadistically depicting her violation. Roger Ebert slammed the film, and I generally trust him, so I encourage everyone to read his review if they want a more descriptive take on what's out there.
I refuse to post the key art here, but if you want to see it, Google it or go to Wikipedia. Then tell me it's not exploitative.
It sounds like this film crosses the line from including rape as a plot point, and gets VERY close to being rape as entertainment. And the reason that scares me is because once the "realism" gets that over-the-top, it opens the door very widely for potential parody. Consider the extreme violence of Saw, and then how that beget many, many Saw parodies that played the sadism of those films for laughs.
True, the fact that I Spit On Your Grave probably won't be as huge a hit as Saw might stave off the parodies for a time. But don't kid yourself, we're a LOT closer to the scenario Tripp paints than you probably think. It's human nature. We see something horrible, and if it's too horrible for us to take in, we make a joke of it. But it's how something like Hitler and Holocaust jokes go from being gallows humor to mainstream humor.
The reason Tarantino was able to make realistic violence funny had something to do with how over-the-top violence had been in the decade or so before he broke onto the scene. It was so excessive that viewers ceased to comprehend it with any reality. And hell, they're already primed to laugh at pain and violence! Look at the Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, or America's Funniest Home Videos. All Tarantino did was impose the tropes of those cartoons into the style of the 80s action films. It's how a graphically exploding head goes from horrifying to hilarious.
Here's how I see it going down. We tend to accept crass jokes that make a victim of an entire race or culture if the teller is of that particular culture. In other words, if a Jewish artist like Mel Brooks makes a Holocaust joke, then it's okay to laugh. Eventually everyone else has "permission" to make the joke. Tyler Perry fills his movies with black stereotypes that would get the filmmaker killed if his name was Michael Bay. But since Perry's black, it's okay... and then eventually we forgot why it's not okay for anyone else to do it.
I promise you, some day soon - within the next ten years - an up-and-coming female director will wring comedy out of a male/female rape scene - just as Tarantino got comedy out of brutal violence. This director will probably be a cross between Sarah Silverman and Diablo Cody and she'll be hailed for her "unique voice" and "daring comedic instincts." There will be activist groups up in arms, but the film will do big business and it will be a mainstream hit. It will launch this director's career. The film will not come from an established director. (Any established female director wouldn't take the chance on the material. They'd have too much to lose.)
It will be one of the most talked-about scenes in one of the most talked-about films of that year. The director will be every bit as polarizing as Tarantino was when he hit the scene, but the movie will hit, and people will laugh. They'll be embarrassed at themselves for laughing, might even hate themselves, but that shame will fade, as it always does. Within a year of that release, Hollywood will be filled with spec scripts trying to outdo that rape scene.
Nothing stays taboo forever. Just look at the history. If you think the scenario I laid out can't happen - if you think that 20 years from now someone won't stumble across Tripp's last post and chuckle at how tame it is - then I have just three words for you:
"Prove me wrong."
I really want to hear from you all on this one, especially the many female writers who frequent this blog.